PC gaming in the late ‘90s was something of a renaissance. Shooters were starting to evolve into something more than mindless slogs and thanks to Blizzard’s Warcraft and Starcraft series, strategy games were all the rage. So it was only natural that someone would try to meld the two. There were several notable attempts all around the same time, but Activision managed to take the prize with its brilliant reimagining of Atari’s classic tank arcade game Battlezone. And now that reimagining has been re-released for a new generation of gamers.
Atari’s Battlezone, released in arcades way back in 1980, was a cutting edge shooter with innovative tank controls and, for the time, amazing 3D graphics. Yet “modernizing” arcade games is always an iffy proposition—taking games meant to suck quarters and be short, fast-paced experiences don’t necessarily mesh well with more contemporary gaming sensibilities. So Activision took the name and the theme of tanks (and tank-like objects) shooting each other and ran with it—straight into the Cold War.
Taking place in an alternate 1960s, the reimagined Battlezone told the story of the clandestine war between the US and the USSR in space. After the discovery of a new and powerful element that could change the balance of power on Earth, the two superpowers competed to build bases, mine, and destroy each other through the solar system. It was a great setup for a game that meshed traditional shooting with vehicular mayhem and base building.
The odds are good that younger gamers missed Activision’s Battlezone the first time around. Thankfully all you gamers bereft of classical PC gaming knowledge get a second chance: Battlezone ‘98 Redux dropped almost without a word of advance notice on Steam recently and now everyone with a decent PC can experience for themselves one of the most distinctive action games of the ‘90s.
The single-player game lets you play as either the Russians or the Americans, each with their own set of missions. Each side comes with a basic set of vehicles and structures, done up in somewhat different styles, though they play largely the same for the sake of game balance. Much like traditional real-time strategy games (or even the more common tower defense games), Battlezone asks players to focus on building factories to quickly construct more troops and vehicles, in addition to base defenses and other necessary structures for life in hostile off-world locations. Unlike other strategy games though, Battlezone takes place mostly from an immersive, boots-on-the-ground first-person perspective.
Multiplayer is the real meat of the game. Strategy lovers can focus on building the base, while more action-oriented players split between defending the base from attackers and going on the offensive to destroy the enemy base. Given that it was the ‘90s, matches aren’t huge—only supporting 2-8 players—but the game created a totally new concept of what multiplayer could be. Moving from the primitive deathmatch mentality of Doom and all its clones was a huge step forward for games, and Battlezone did it was ease. And for traditional action lovers, its actual deathmatch mode was a blistering tank battle nirvana.
Another memorable element that provides hilarious fun in both the single and multiplayer modes is the ability to move on foot—either on purpose or because your vehicle was demolished. Being outside your tank is a bad move normally, but the infrared sniper rifle you’re equipped with is so damn much fun. Thanks to this magical gun, foot soldiers can zoom in on the pilots of enemy craft and, with decent aim, pop those commie (or capitalist) buggers right in the melon. This enables you to steal their vehicle. It’s entirely possible that this is the best part of the whole game, which is a high compliment.
All of these elements are why Battlezone remains a classic in the minds of those who played it nearly 20 years ago and why developer Rebellion decided to dress it up for modern times. Rebellion, known for their Alien vs. Predator and Sniper Elite series, have kept the classic game intact, while modernizing the graphics. It’s not a total sea change by any means; Battlezone ‘98 Redux still mostly looks like an old game reskinned for modern tech—vehicle models have been refined and the planet surfaces look great, but it remains largely the same game.
That’s fine with fans like me. It looks good enough and the floaty feel of piloting hover tanks across the surface of Mars, the Moon, Venus, Titan, and other planetary bodies feels just right. There are still very few games that mix genres as well as Activision’s Battlezone and if any game deserved to be rekindled for a new generation of PC gamers, this is absolutely it.
Rebellion is also making a new Battlezone game specifically for Sony’s PlayStation VR that will reportedly be released later this year. This game, however, is a straightforward arcade-style shooter that looks gorgeous, but apparently has none of the strategy elements of Battlezone ‘98 Redux. While I’m personally disappointed the new console version won’t be related to Activion’s classic, the neon-glow, Tron aesthetics in this PlayStation VR debut look promising enough to make it a worthwhile launch into the wonders of virtual reality.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
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